Taxpayer-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) has come under fire mostly from opposition parties for not living up to its promise to open up the airwaves during the 60-day official election campaign period.
Ironically, the discontent from opposition parties contesting in the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections comes against a background of the broadcaster pledging to provide airtime for pre-recorded campaign messages as well as 30-minute slots for interviews with each of the eight contesting presidential candidates.
In previous elections, MBC also came under fire for biased reporting against opposition political parties and candidates.
But in her address during the launch of the official campaign on March 19, Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah also assured that the State broadcaster would open up and that parties were given a March 15 deadline to submit their messages for airing.
At the weekend, specifically on Saturday and Sunday, four of the political parties contesting in the elections, namely UTM Party, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), People’s Party (PP) and United Democratic Front (UDF) had key events which, however, MBC did not cover.
UTM Party on Saturday launched its first-ever manifesto and election campaign in Dowa while MCP and PP jointly launched their campaign in Salima on Sunday and UDF did it in Mangochi the same day.
Ironically, during its main news bulletins after the events, MBC only provided coverage for the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) activities on both television and its two radio channels.
In an interview yesterday, MEC director of media and public relations Sangwani Mwafulirwa said only three parties to date have complied with the request to provide pre-recorded campaign messages to MBC.
He said: “Only three parties, Umodzi Party [UP], Tikonze People’s Movement [TPM] and Mbakuwaku Movement for Development [MMD] have submitted. We are working on with MBC to come up with a schedule for broadcasting.”
But MCP spokesperson the Reverend Maurice Munthali, in a telephone interview, said his party is not committed to providing the material due to the conduct of MBC officials.
He said: “We already expressed our worry over MBC’s failure to level the playing field. Now we are being given conditions in order to enjoy our right to use a national broadcaster funded by taxpayers’ money.”
On his part, UTM Party spokesperson Joseph Chidanti-Malunga said they were dismayed at the failure by MBC to cover their important functions, including the campaign launch.
He said UTM Party was yet to provide transport to MBC to facilitate coverage for its staff.
UDF spokesperson Ken Ndanga also said his party had delayed submission of material to MEC to streamline the messages with its manifesto.
He said: “What we are trying to avoid is to record messages that do not speak the same language with our manifestos. We saw during the running mates debate that some candidates were speaking things that were contrary to their manifestos.”
PP spokesperson Ackson Kalaile-Banda said MBC had mastered the art of creating excuses to deny opposition parties access.
He said: “We have tried every means, including offering transport for MBC staff to cover our rallies, but they have refused.”
In a telephone interview yesterday, MBC director general Aubrey Sumbuleta admitted that the broadcaster was yet to include opposition parties in its news bulletins.
He said: “We are going to start the implementation this week with the pre-recorded messages.”
But when asked why the broadcaster was only featuring news on DPP campaign trail, Sumbuleta asked for more time to respond to the question.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter chairperson Teresa Ndanga, who had previously applauded MBC for the arrangement, yesterday urged MEC to use its legal mandate to caution MBC once it notes that it was going off track.
She said: “We are also monitoring the situation to ensure that MBC keeps its word. Misa Malawi will be producing periodic reports not only focusing on MBC, but other media outlets as well.”
Senior MBC officials, according to Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn) chairperson Steve Duwa, assured electoral stakeholders at the National Elections Consultative Forum (Necof) meeting of its resolve to balance up its coverage.
He warned that failure by the public broadcaster to open up would eventually hamper efforts to achieve free, fair and credible elections in the country.
In an e-mailed response yesterday, Duwa faulted MBC for not fulfilling its role to offer balanced news to all parties.
In an earlier interview, Sumbuleta said the broadcaster was working with MEC to ensure that all candidates are given an equal platform on MBC radio stations, television channel and online platform to publicise their manifestos for the electorate make informed decisions. n